Kvetch of the Week: ‘Fake’ journalism’s triumph

For a time this fall I tried watching CNBC to understand the economic crisis a bit better, presuming that its all-business news format would provide at least a sliver of enlightenment.

But its sports talk radio style turned me off and I tuned out after a few weeks, frustrated by constant shouting, sparring and relentless hyperbole about unfettered free market capitalism. You don’t have to be a socialist to think that perhaps all that was missing from this non-stop cheerleading was ESPN’s Stuart Scott blurting “Booyah!” Then again, with Jim Cramer’s mad shrieking, Scott wouldn’t have been able to say anything more than “boo.”

I should have kept watching, listening and paying attention to what was coming from the mouths of CNBC’s on-air “personalities.” I’m glad the folks over at “The Daily Show” did after CNBC loudmouth Rick Santelli blew off a guest appearance last week.

Not only did Jon Stewart admonish him for a “bailout” of sorts, but the comedian launched a devastating assault on the cable outlet’s leading role as a stenographer to now-disgraced Masters of the Universe.

I’m probably piling on here by linking to the Stewart clip since it’s been all the rage in the journosphere, but it’s quite obviously the reigning media Kvetch of the Week and perhaps of this millennium as well.

There are plenty of great zingers in this 8-minute clip, but none better than this one:

“If I’d only followed CNBC’s advice, I’d have $1 million today . . . provided I’d started with $100 million.”

And the critiques of Stewart’s critique have continued ever since, especially those tying the episode to the journalism profession. Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News thinks it’s a “teachable moment” for battered newsrooms, illustrated by the simple use of great research (video clips) over insider access (CNBC’s stock-in-trade with the Wall Street elite).

A few more takes are here and here. A piece in today’s New York Times violates one of Bunch’s rules with its exceptional balance, dutifully summarizing the Stewart flap and revealing how unjournalistic CNBC’s hosts truly are. But then again, “CNBC is a boon to NBC Universal’s bottom line.” Curiously, the Times lets Stewart make the substantive argument about how catastrophically wrong CNBC’s coverage has been for more than a year.

If I had not seen Stewart’s kvetch, or had not followed the reaction to it, I might read the Times piece and shrug my shoulders about the whole matter. Even the lead paragraph — “Was last week the worst one in CNBC’s 20-year history — or the best?” — precludes a serious analysis of how the media, from the sobering Gray Lady of the Times to rip-and-roar snorting on CNBC, wasn’t paying much more attention to the coming meltdown than Wall Street titans, leading economists or government officials.

Instead, it was a “fake” journalist who cut deeper to the truth. Jim Cramer fires back at Stewart and anyone else critical of him.

But the damage has been done, and later last week Stewart appeared with David Letterman, who took down John McCain during the presidential campaign for canceling an appearance on “The Late Show,” supposedly to return to Washington to deal with the economy. Instead, McCain was seen on tape getting makeup to appear with CBS news host Katie Couric.

Lesson here: Blow off these comedians at your own risk. It’s highly unlikely, however, that Santelli or anyone else from CNBC will trudge to the set of Stewart’s show, like McCain did with Letterman, to offer a mea culpa.

In its attitude-driven attempt to cover business news like entertainers, CNBC received a choice lesson from a professional entertainer who shows more journalistic chops than many media watchdogs. This analysis of Stewart’s place in current popular culture is not a new one, but his work last week might be his most powerful example yet that he’s much more than a comedian:

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5 thoughts on “Kvetch of the Week: ‘Fake’ journalism’s triumph

  1. Jon Stewart’s critique of Cramer in particular, although you seem to be enthusiastic about it, is flawed in several ways.

    Firstly, Jon Stewart’s critique reveals a fundamental ignorance of what can or cannot be reasonably expected from stock trading advice. Stock trading is just another form of gambling, like betting on the horses or betting on the outcome of throwing a pair of dice. Predictions about outcomes cannot be expected to have a 100% success rate. The process is inherently non-deterministic.

    This is why Stewart’s critique of specific stock picks made by Cramer are funny, but really don’t say anything about Cramer’s real ability to make good stock picks over the long term and over a wider range of stocks. If Stewart knew anything about the math of probability or gambling he would know that no one can consistently be successful on every bet. That doesn’t mean the bet is the wrong bet, it just means that the outcome in that one instance was not favorable. The trick is to consistently make good bets over a long period of time in order to maximize your returns over the whole series of bets. If you play poker the principle is the same. You want to be able to make the right bet with the hand that you’ve drawn, even if you end up losing on that particular hand. You can make the right bet and lose, but you can also make the wrong bet and win. Making the right bets consistently based on the information at your disposal is more important than being right on any particular bet.

    A simple way to look at this is to consider a pair of dice. A little bit of analysis will show that the best bet is to bet on the sum of the dice turning up 7. Your chances of being right are 1 in 6. Does that mean you will be right every time you bet on 7 ? Of course not. Occasionally snake eyes or double sixes do turn up. But if you continued to bet on 7 and rolled the dice 1000 times you are very likely to do a lot better than someone that bet on the sum being 12 for those same 1000 throws.

    So that’s the first fundamental misunderstanding. The other bit of ignorance has to do with the issue of information. A lot of CEO’s simple lied about the state of their company on Cramer’s show. Cramer himself has admitted this. Any bet you make is only as good as the information at your disposal. Betting is inherently probabilistic and non-deterministic to begin with, but things are much much worse if the information you are using to make the bet is horribly flawed. Many bad bets made by Cramer fall into this category.

    Finally, Stewart doesn’t address any of Cramer’s actual arguments or critiques of Obama’s decisions. Instead of dealing with Cramer’s actual arguments, Stewart engages in character assassination which may be entertaining, but is really a fallacious form of argumentation.

    What makes this even more ironic is that Cramer actually supports Obama’s policies, he only takes issues with Obama’s timing. Now is not the time to implement a socialist agenda. The country is in economic crisis and implementing socialism is not the way to get us out of it.

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  2. A triumph? I agree with David. Stewart’s argument, as usual, was an irrational spew of words.

    Stewart has been critical of Cramer because he occasionally has an incorrect stock pick. He pointed to Cramer’s incorrect Wachovia pick for example. However, he didn’t mention that Cramer based that pick on incorrect information provided by the CEO of Wachovia (who is now under investigation for lying to stock holders). I could go on. Stewart manipulates people by deceiving them, and you obviously took the bait.

    Cramer has millions of viewers and has sold millions of books because he provides fairly sound stock advice and teaches people how to play the market. John Stewart has millions of viewers because there are millions of brain dead people in America.

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  3. Thanks for the comments.

    This post isn’t about politics, or Obama, or socialism, or Jim Cramer, although Cramer has been reacting as though Jon Stewart’s rant was aimed specifically at him. It was not. My post was about Stewart calling out CBNC’s cheerleading coverage of Wall Street as it was melting down. And nothing more.

    Above all, it’s a ringing indictment of the journalism profession — my profession — that was not performing its watchdog role on a matter that is drastically affecting so many lives, and will for quite a long time to come.

    As for the details of Cramer’s stock-picking advice, I won’t argue with you because I don’t know enough about the subject. Stewart’s point was to illustrate how across the board, CNBC hosts and talking heads were kow-towing to, rather than questioning, some of the figures who are at the center of our economic mess, or who have contributed to or symbolize the financial disaster on our hands.

    As for CEOs lying about the state of their corporations, I offer this rejoinder: Shouldn’t the supposedly curious, probing Cramer – and anyone else on an all-business cable channel — be using their smarts and the benefits of a 24/7 format to find out what was really going on?

    Instead, Maria Bartiromo was batting her eyelashes at John Thain at Davos, and Carl Quintanilla was going all fanboy with Allen Stanford about being a billionaire. I think Stewart was much harsher on Bartiromo and Quintanilla than Cramer. But Cramer’s the volatile one here, the lightning rod.

    So in that light, I do look forward to watching Cramer on “The Daily Show” tonight. Call me brain dead, but it ought to be quite revealing. Here’s a “preview” from USA Today:

    http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2009-03-11-cnbc-cramer-stewart_N.htm

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  4. I also appreciate your comments Wendy, and as for me, I wouldn’t call you brain dead. As a journalist however, you should know that using comedy central as one’s main news source is a recipe for misinformation. The Cramer/CNBC/Stewart war is case in point. Stewart’s CNBC clips were carefully chosen to prove his point. You’ll need to put on your Journalist/researcher cap and do some more homework on this.

    If you’ve ever watched Cramer’s show for any length of time, and I’m guessing you haven’t, there is never an episode that goes by that he doesn’t give a company or a CEO a huge dose of criticism. That’s what he does. He analyses companies and CEOs that are screwing up and warns investors against those companies. On the other hand he does get excited about certain companies once there is some empirical evidence to show that they might show some promise.

    As far as being critical of the greed on wall street, or of the former administration or the entire housing crisis fiasco, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of the famous ‘Cramer Meltdown’ rant back in 2008. It would be hard to name someone who wasn’t more critical of what was going on than Cramer. In fact, had the Bush administration and those in power listened to Cramer at that time, a good portion of the crisis might have been averted. I challenge you to research some of the details of Cramer’s warnings and his famous “They know nothing!!” rant. Stewart purposely omitted clips like that one because they would run counter to the thesis of his Video collage piece.

    I don’t mean to come across as some kind of Cramer worshipper, because I’m not, but in the interest of fairness, Cramer is not a kow-tower. I’m sure there are some people at CNBC that may fall into that category, but what Stewart did in his video collage is misleading, and a gross simplification at best. As I mentioned in my first post, it’s not hard to cherry pick Cramer’s bad stock picks or his misplaced confidence in certain people. It is also relatively easy to just omit the examples of really hard edged criticism that actually is characteristic of Cramer’s style.

    Stewart’s criticism is also misplaced because it is just another example of the ‘hindsight being 20-20’ syndrome.
    Should all of these financial experts have known what was going on? To some degree people like Cramer did know, but it is just plain wrong to think that they could have known everything. Take the financial genius Warren Buffet for example. If anyone should have known where the market was going he should have, wouldn’t you say?
    Despite his genius his company lost 62% in 2008. George Soros did a bit better than Buffet , partly because he had a better sense of what was going on. As far as I know, there is only one individual who really knew what was going on in the entire chain of lies that characterized the sub prime mortgage market. He is a hedge fund manager whose name eludes me, but he was able to put his knowledge to work and ended up making a few billion betting against the entire housing market. ( I’ll try to dig up his name if you’re interested )

    So did Cramer use his smarts based on all the information that was available to him. I would say yes.
    Did he recognize a stench wafting in from the financial world. Again I would say, he absolutely did. Did he believe what CEOs told him on his show? Yes, in the beginning anyway. But make no mistake about it, he didn’t maintain that naivety for long. Cramer himself mentioned on his show how pissed off he was about being lied to but he never made the mistake of taking CEOs at their word again. I’ve watched the show long enough to see this entire history enfold, and Cramer is very good at owning up to his mistakes which he has done several times.

    So what can we say? In the end Jon Stewart is just a comedian who likes to get a laugh. Can you seriously consider his witticisms and video clips serious, fair and balanced journalism? It’s hard to imagine something that is less balanced and more of an abysmal example of bad journalism. But then again, it’s just a comedy show. It’s not really Journalism.

    Obviously Stewart is a huge fan of Obama, and he is bright enough and funny enough to make Obama’s critics look bad if he wants to. And really, that’s all this is about anyway. I’m convinced that Jon Stewart couldn’t care less whether Cramer’s criticisms are really valid. He makes money by making people laugh, and that’s it.

    Should other journalists be reprimanded for not calling out these CEOs more aggressively? Perhaps,
    but I’ve actually seen some really good journalistic pieces on CNBC by journalists who did. If you haven’t seen the “House of Cards” documentary that aired on CNBC than I urge you to see it.

    Since I’m also looking forward to seeing Cramer on the daily show, I’m going to go watch it now. I DVR’d and it should be good. Peace.

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  5. I think what Stewart did to Cramer on his show last night was despicable.

    This was an example of scapegoating at it’s worst. So much for being the comedian.

    Howard Kurtz a columnist at the Washington Post gives a fair description of
    what went down. Cramer was way too meek and apologetic. Sorry Jon but Cramer is not the cause of the economic meltdown, as easy as that explanation might be to your left wing sensibilities.

    See the article:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/13/AR2009031300981.html

    Perhaps Stewart would like to get his audience together and organize a lynching. Why not hang a few stock traders and capitalists from the nearest tree. Ya, that’ll work.

    The entire display was disgusting.

    Hate fueled by ignorance, plain and simple. Wouldn’t have expected it from Stewart.

    At this point, it’ll be hard to watch the daily show.

    I’m disappointed. What I can I say.

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